"Leave the Fads to the Yankees:" the Campaigns for Commission and City Manager Government in Toronto, 1910-1926
Petersen, Patricia, Urban History Review
Does the border between the United States and Canada make a difference? To a political scientist it does for the obvious reason: the border defines two different political entities with different forms of government, different political customs and conventions. Two attempts in the first thirty years of the twentieth century to change the structure of the government of the City of Toronto illustrate the difference the border can make.
The two proposals, commission government and city manager government, had originated with municipal reformers in the United States during the Progressive Era. The main idea behind both plans was to concentrate the executive and legislative authority in one governing unit. Commission and city manager government, however, attracted only a few supporters in the City despite their extreme popularity in the United States. City government in Toronto was not considered as bad as the government in those cities in the United States that had changed to new forms. Moreover, the proposals were American innovations and Toronto politicians were wary of American fads, especially ones like these which were drawn "from the uncertain spheres of political theory."
La frontiere entre les Etats-Unis et le Canada change-t-elle quelquechose? Pour un specialiste en science politique, et pour d'evidentes raisons, la reponse est oui: la frontiere separe deux entites politiques distinctes, avec chacune une forme de gouvernement distinct, des coutumes et des conventions politiques distinctes. Au cours des trente premieres annees du [20.sup.e] siecle, deux tentatives visant a modifier la structure du gouvernement de la ville de Toronto illustrent la difference que peutfaire cette frontiere.
Les deux propositions, le gouvernement avec une commission et le gouvernement avec un directeur municipal emanaient de reformateurs municipaux americains, et dataient de l'age du progres. L'idee etait avant tout de reunir le pouvoir executif et le pouvoir legislatif en une meme unite administrative. Cependant, ce mode de gouvernement avec une commission et un directeur municipal ne rallia a Toronto que quelques adeptes, alors qu'il connut aux Etats-Unis un tres grand succes. Le gouvernement municipal de Toronto n'etait pas considere comme etant aussi desastreux que celui des villes americaines qui avaient adopte les nouvelles formules. De plus, ces propositions etaient des innovations americaines, et les politiciens de Toronto eprouvaient une certaine mefiance a l'egard des modes americaines, en particulier, des modes comme celles-ci emanant "des spheres incertaines d'une theorie politique."
Our sharing 4000 miles of border with a large and energetic country may have some disadvantages, but it has at least one advantage: it gives us something to talk about. One question which continually occupies Canadians is the amount of influence the United States has had on their country. The Progressive Era which extended from approximately the 1880s to the 1920s was a period of intense reform in the United States. Much of this reform was directed at cities. Canadians were also occupied with urban reform during the same period, although to a lesser extent, (for one thing, Canada had fewer cities). It seems highly likely, therefore, that there would be a sharing of reform ideas across the border. This paper examines several unsuccessful attempts to import two of the most popular innovations of the Progressive Era to Toronto: commission and city manager government.
The Progressive Era in the United States, and the reform movements in Canada during the same period, were responses to changes engendered by rapid industrialization. City governments, in particular, bore the brunt of the changes for they had to provide basic services to their growing populations and developing industries. Cities were responsible for ensuring a supply of clean water, adequate gas and electricity for heat and light, some form of public transportation, and a healthy environment for their residents. Many city governments were unsuccessful. Some lacked the authority, the money, or the officials with administrative or technical knowledge. Often party politics or corruption, or both, kept them from doing their job. (1)
Because city governments could not, or would not, act, organizations sprang up in both countries to campaign for reforms. According to Paul Rutherford, it was this "collectivist urge" to create organizations "to control a society both fluid and complex" that distinguished this period in history in Canada and the United States. (2) The reforms these organizations fought for varied considerably. To make sense out of this variety, Rutherford and James Anderson have divided the reformers into two camps: social reformers who fought on moral issues, such as temperance, and institutional reformers who were more interested in changing the way city governments were run. Rutherford and Anderson argue that this distinction is important because the groups often came from different segments of society. Social reformers were generally women, clergymen, and academics, whereas the "typical leaders of campaigns for local government reform ... were leading businessmen, usually members of the boards of trade." (3) By the turn of the century, however, the focus of urban reform was set on changing institutions. (4) One aspect of this institutional reform was the reform of municipal government structure.
Local businessmen in cities in both countries advocated structural reform to city government and their arguments were the same: let's create a more efficient, i.e. businesslike, government. They hoped that the reforms they promoted would replace the politicians on city councils with businessmen and produce a professional civil service to advise them. According to John Weaver, the "ethos of economy and efficiency" was "the most enduring of reform concepts." (5)
These reforms, once implemented, tended to benefit the upper middle class in both countries. James Anderson's examination of municipal reform in the Canadian west concludes that the reforms were "anti-democratic" for they reduced the ability of the working classes to participate in government decisions. John Weaver has come to much the same conclusion in examining reforms in the City of Toronto. Municipal government reforms, he notes, were designed to erode the authority of the ward alderman under the guise of reducing inefficiency. Furthermore, he discovered that in the campaigns for municipal ownership of streetcars "the question of property development was central." (6)
There were exceptions to this, however. The history of the campaign for commission government in St. John, New Brunswick illustrates that working classes could also benefit from the reforms. According to H.V. Nelles and Christopher Armstrong, a campaign for commission government was initiated by the local board of trade to attract industry to the city. Because the vote to adopt the new form of government was by citywide referendum, it needed the support of the working classes to pass. (The franchise had been extended to this class a few years earlier.) The form of commission government on the ballot, and supported by the board of trade, included clauses which gave ordinary citizens a great deal of control over city government. (7)
St. John was one of two Canadian cities to convert to commission government. In 1913, Lethbridge, Alberta also changed to commission government when its city council was replaced with a commission consisting of three elected commissioners. (8) It seems that commission government was not very popular in the rest of Canada, however. It was rejected by most of the people appearing before the Royal Commission on Municipal Government in British Columbia in 1912 precisely because "it place(d) too much uncontrolled power in the hands of a few men." (9) Nor was it ever adopted for any city in Ontario despite a strenuous campaign for it--in Toronto, at least.
Toronto was certainly not immune to urban problems. These are well documented in Maurice Careless's Toronto to 1918, and also in Forging a Consensus, a volume of essays produced for the City's sesquicentennial. (10) The description of the continuous and often frustrating attempts by Toronto Council to regulate the private companies responsible for providing services to its residents, for example, is a striking illustration of the difficulties the city faced during this period. (11) In comparison to many American cities, however, Toronto was doing well. As Roger Riendeau notes, Toronto gave an "impressive performance in providing for the social and economic welfare of its citizens between 1900 and 1930." (12)
Without a doubt this performance was due to the City's unique civic culture which was in place by 1884. This civic culture was based on a consensus over "the values of efficiency, order, and stability", (13) essentially the same ideas progressive reformers in the United States were to promote several years later. This civic culture produced aldermen who were "tight-fisted" and "utilitarian". "As a result, city government could scarcely be accused of extravagance and not often of corruption--blatant, anyway." (14) These values of "efficiency, order, and stability" were reflected in the only major change to Toronto government: the board of control. The board of control was created in 1895 to restrain council spending. It was an initiative of Toronto Council and was the end result of a number of small changes that previous councils had made to the structure of city government over a period of years. (15) Allied with these values was an undercurrent of anti-americanism. This appeared periodically in debates at council in the latter part of the nineteenth century especially during the debates on the structural changes that would lead to the board of control. Labelling a scheme for restructuring government as "Yankee" was enough to condemn it, if for no other reasons than that "the record of Chicago and New York should be a warning to Toronto." (16) Toronto, it seems, was not fertile ground for the campaigns that were to come in the beginning of the …
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Publication information: Article title: "Leave the Fads to the Yankees:" the Campaigns for Commission and City Manager Government in Toronto, 1910-1926. Contributors: Petersen, Patricia - Author. Journal title: Urban History Review. Volume: 20. Issue: 2-3 Publication date: October 1991. Page number: 72+. © 1998 Becker Associates. COPYRIGHT 1991 Gale Group.
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